Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

In the trailer for her short story collection, The Wonder Garden, Lauren Acampora calls herself “an anthropologist of the suburbs.” Her linked stories, which coalesce into a pseudo-novel, pull back the curtains on the pristine homes that line quiet, happy streets and reveal what really goes on inside those houses. The video is a terrific introduction to Acampora and her work as it follows her driving around the neighborhood of her New England town, sitting at her laptop, and conversing with her husband, Thomas Doyle, an artist whose fascinating miniatures of off-kilter suburbia are the perfect eye-magnets for his wife’s work. I loved the cover of The Wonder Garden hardcover, but I think I love the design for the paperback (which comes out today from Grove Press) even more. I mean, just look at the satisfying menace of that house-on-house violence. In the same way, Acampora’s characters, who think they live in domestic paradise, are always on the brink of disaster. “One of my favorite things to do is drive around and look at all the beautiful houses in the area,” Lauren says. “I wonder who lives in them. Are they experiencing the kind of happiness these houses seem to advertise?” To find the complicated answer to that question, she goes to her laptop and works it out on the page. As Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City, notes: “The world depicted in Lauren Acampora’s stories seems reassuringly familiar, until it becomes unaccountably strange and unsettling. One moment we seem to be in Cheever’s Westchester, the next we plunge through the looking glass into realms that may remind some readers of George Saunders or Robert Coover or the David Lynch of Blue Velvet, though, inevitably, all resemblances prove to be superficial. Acampora is an original and The Wonder Garden is an outstanding debut.”

Monday, February 8, 2016

My First Time: Richard Fifield

Photo by Noel Lindquist
My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Richard Fifield, whose debut novel The Flood Girls was just released by Simon & Schuster. Here’s what Sharma Shields (The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac) had to say about it: “Reading this novel is like unwrapping the wackiest birthday gift you’ve ever received: The Flood Girls is a heart-shaped box filled with broads, softballs, drunks, Jackie Collins paperbacks, music, guns, and, most vibrantly of all, humanity. I started this book laughing out loud; I finished it grieving and grateful. Richard Fifield is the handsomest writer in North America, and perhaps its most compassionate.” Richard was born and raised in Troy, Montana. He attended The University Of Montana and Sarah Lawrence College. He has worked in case management and direct care for adults with developmental disabilities most of his adult life. His work has been published in Cedilla, The Global City Review, Teacup, and Outwords. He currently lives in Missoula, Montana, where he is hard at work on his next book.

My First Novel

I never thought my first novel would be about sports. I grew up in a small town in Montana, just like Quinn, the place I created in The Flood Girls. For my fourth birthday, my mother bought me a subscription to TV Guide, which I read and studied like the Bible, even though we would not get cable or a VCR for another seven years. When I was six, I discovered my older sister’s hope chest, where she kept her cigarettes and trashy books. I believe I was the only person to find hope there. Her romance novels caused my homosexuality. Don’t believe the scientists.

I always wanted to be a writer; I lived in books, especially the forbidden ones. My mother was married five times (truly impressive for a town of 900 people) and owned a gas station, so she didn’t have much time to monitor my choice of reading materials. At the grocery store, there was a swinging rack of used paperbacks, all books the town librarian declared off-limits for a grade-schooler. Here is where I discovered Stephen King, Jackie Collins, and the entire Flowers In The Attic series. Here is where I devoured true crime novels, always split in thirds by lurid photographs on glossy paper. I did not want to grow up to be a slutty heiress or a serial killer—I knew that writing was my calling, and I immediately got to work.

In addition to homosexuality, my sisters introduced me to softball. My sisters belonged to Big Sky, a team of women from town, young and old, rich and poor, mannish and glamorous. I tagged along to all of their games, which was my mother’s version of babysitting. I sat with all the purses in the dugout, and before long, I was keeping score for the league, and no longer had to steal money from my mother for my paperbacks. It is shocking to me now that they trusted me with such an important task, but I was always a laser-focused child, and despite my lack of sports knowledge, I knew women. I complimented perms when I didn’t really mean it, listened attentively when they talked to me about boyfriends and husbands and Rick Springfield, even though I was only attracted to the latter. I passed around my paperbacks, and I believe that I started the first unofficial book club in town. I worshiped those women, how they could be ferocious on the field, sunburned and bleeding from diving for balls and sliding into home, and yet cry in their tiny trucks before and after games, from hearts broken, bills due, overwhelmed from being young mothers or old mistresses. I loved them, and they loved each other fiercely, and I was honored to be included.

Time passed, and my sisters moved on, and I spent my days just trying to survive, waiting to escape. I set the novel in 1991, before homosexuality was discussed, when Richard Simmons was the only gay role model on television. Like my character Jake, I found my ways to get through the days. I was targeted until I charmed a pack of aggressive alpha females, the slutty girls, the drunk girls, and the cheerleaders. If they were pretty, I cleaned up their vomit and their sentence structure. They were my bodyguards, and in return I wrote their papers and babysat when they drank too many wine coolers at parties in the woods. I shoplifted make-up and cassette singles: although my gifts were stolen, they were chosen carefully, and with love.

I went to college and graduate school for writing, but instead of finding my voice, I found drugs and alcohol and fashion. I wrote all of my fiction under the influence of crystal meth, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and shopping. Where I grew up, we got our new clothes from K-Mart, and that was a three-hour drive. I graduated with an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and was banned from attending the party, because it was held in a bar that I had been eighty-sixed from because I had thrown shot glasses at the bartender and broke all of the mirrors, and he had chased me outside and pinned me to the hood of a car, which ended my friendship with my new chosen group of alpha females, the Jewish American Princesses. I frightened my professors with my smeared mascara and vicious behavior in workshops. I do not regret this—I believe my legacy lives on, a cautionary tale, the cracked-out mean girl in a ratty fur coat, rarely seen in the daylight, writer as high-fashion Sasquatch.

I moved back to Montana in the year 2000, beaten down by New York City, and kept drinking for five more years, until I was isolated in a trailer house on the outskirts of Missoula, drinking by myself, because nobody could handle me. I wrote screenplays for terrible horror movies and branched out to visual art, but I only painted portraits of the different faces of Michael Jackson. When I finally got sober, I stopped writing. I didn’t think I could do it sober. Five years in, the twelve steps worked and reworked, my therapist gave me a set of three blank notebooks. He told me to write a novel. In AA, we learn to trust our higher power, and our therapists. It was winter, and my best friend drove me to her family cabin, because my own car wouldn’t make it. Big Sky Lake is private , and abandoned for the season. I brought my dogs and cases of Diet Coke and a carry-on stuffed with cigarettes and frozen burritos. I stayed for a week, and wrote the entire first draft of The Flood Girls by hand, sitting at a kitchen table. When she picked me up, my friend told me that I looked like I had been on a bender. The protagonists of the novel had hijacked my bloodstream; I had finally found release through the stories of all the women I had ever loved, and the story of myself. I had been searching for that release through drugs and alcohol and clearance racks of boot cut jeans, and now I was truly high on my own supply. I had found it inside myself, a nickel bag that had been wedged in my heart the whole time, and I shook out that bag carefully, and arranged the lines at a kitchen table.

Writing this book has been a new journey, another set of twelve steps, each one a new level of magic. The novel came out fully formed, almost supernaturally, and the ensuing drafts have all come out of me, exorcised, and I have had to get out of my own way and trust in my higher power. As an obsessive compulsive control freak Virgo, this has been difficult. I have had to surrender to the magic of it all. A month after I wrote the first draft, I was approached by a guy I barely knew, who asked me to join his softball team. Without hesitation, I said yes, despite never having played any organized sport in my life, thinking that it would be good research, perhaps bring some authenticity to the softball scenes. I told him that I would only play right field, and would most likely give up running before I made it to first base. It surprised us both when I swung at every pitch at the first practice, and hit the living shit out of the ball. Before long, the coach moved me from right field to rover, and at the end of our first season, I collected quite a few RBIs. If you knew me off the field, you would know how messed up that is. None of my friends could believe it, and my pack of ferocious females came to watch me play, even though they hate sports as much as I. It was unbelievable, but it all seemed fated, and my favorite hour of the week is softball. I have faith for an hour, complete comfort with myself, and a strange peace. I have the best accessories of anyone in the league, batting gloves and knee high rainbow socks special ordered. I carry a tasteful man purse, stuffed with sporting gear, and I dare anybody to give me grief about it.

I’m writing this essay on the back deck of the real Dirty Shame bar. I have come home, after all these years, to work on my final edits for Simon & Schuster. It all still feels like a dream, despite the realities of contracts signed and meeting my agent and editor in real life. I am a writer. All these years later, I am in the forest outside of my hometown, and it seems exactly right.

Tonight, I go to an AA meeting, the first one I’ve ever attended in my hometown, and I am looking forward to the people I will discover there; maybe I’ll find out which cheerleader finally washed up on the shore of recovery. In a way, I’m living out the plot of my novel, because it must be done. I know I am less than ten miles away from many of the women who inspired me in the first place. All of those women, thirty years later, the days of softball long behind them, have heard about my novel. My sister has told all of her former teammates, and they are honored. When I go into town tonight, I will not seek out my bullies and attempt to find closure. I will not seek out my former bodyguards and attempt to thank them. All of those beautiful, ferocious women. I have finally stopped keeping score.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Sentence: This is What I Want by Craig Lancaster

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

Their first child, delivered on the coldest day of winter, 1959, had come into the world sour.

This Is What I Want by Craig Lancaster

Friday, February 5, 2016

Friday Freebie: Casualties by Elizabeth Marro

Congratulations to Elizabeth Vollbach, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Winter by Christopher Nicholson.

This week’s book giveaway is Casualties by Elizabeth Marro. I have two signed copies of the novel up for grabs. I was lucky to have read an advance copy of this engaging book and I offered up these words of praise: “There’s an emotional jolt early in the pages of Elizabeth Marro’s debut novel Casualties that reminds us not all battle scars start on the battlefield. The bell-like tolls of this tragic event will reverberate throughout the rest of this heartbreaking novel as Ruth and Casey, two strangers broken by grief and regret, reluctantly join together on a cross-country road trip. Elizabeth Marro made me care about these two people so much that by the end of the novel I’d forgotten they were fictional characters and I was ready to call them up to see how they were doing and if they’d finally found their way toward peace and forgiveness.” Read on for more information...

As an executive for one of the most successful military defense contractors in the country, Ruth Nolan should have been thrilled when her troubled son, Robbie, chose to join the marines. But she wasn’t. She was terrified. So, when he returns home to San Diego after his second tour in Iraq, apparently unscathed, it feels like a chance to start over and make things right—until a scandal at work tears her away from their reunion. By the next morning, Robbie is gone. A note arrives for Ruth in the mail a few days later saying, “I’m sorry for everything. It’s not your fault. I love you.” Without a backward glance, Ruth packs up Robbie’s ashes and drives east, heading away from her guilt and regret. But the closer she gets to the coast she was born on, the more evident it becomes that she won’t outrun her demons—eventually, she’ll have to face them and confront the painful truth about her past, her choices, the war, and her son.

If you’d like a chance at winning a signed copy of Casualties, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 11, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 12. This contest is open to all readers, U.S. and international. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Online Luddite

Katey Schultz, an award-winning author, knows how to flash. Fiction, that is—flash fiction, as we saw in her brilliant collection Flashes of War published in 2013. Katey will teach a course for the 49 Writers Center in Anchorage, Alaska and she asked if she could share some of her pre-course thoughts with Quivering Pen readers. I, of course, said yes...in a flash.

I’ve been giddy all month, but as someone who is labeled “a Luddite” by family and friends, I’m hesitant to talk about why. In a few weeks, my online flash fiction class for 49 Alaska Writing Center goes live. Working quietly from home, I’ve been creating the syllabus for this class, which will pop up for the month of March like a circus—dreamy, full of wonder, with a lot of good one-liners—then move on to make way for other classes.

My relationship with technology has been strained since I was a grunge-fuelled teenager. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest during the height of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I saw Everclear perform for a cover charge of one can of beans (donated to the local homeless shelter). That was my kind of technology—person-to-person, pay it forward, experiential. By the time I moved out to go to college, I’d become one of those people with a “Kill Your TV” bumper sticker and have opted to live without television ever since. Smartphones? Suffice it to say, I made Verizon deactivate email capabilities on my phone and requested “the dumbest smartphone you can find” when signing my latest contract.

So what does being a Luddite have to do with flash fiction (and an online course, at that)?

Flash fiction is a genre marked by diminished resources. The stories can only be 250-750 words (1,000 max). There’s no time for tremendous backstory and there’s no need. These are the stories that begin immediately, featuring characters who are outsized by their circumstances and have no choice but to react with whatever’s on hand. Maybe in some small way, I feel outsized by the huge technological advances myself and other Gen-Xers have seen in a relatively short period of time. Maybe by writing stories that evoke a world of possibility with something as small as a can of beans, I’m always trying to get back to the feeling that what I had as a child—or at least as an angst-filled teen—would be enough in the end.

Circumstances that outsize us in life and on the page, technology included, force us to react without time for pretense. This means we have a conflict and a desire, and when we put the two together, we get what I call yearning. Yearning, when paired with metaphor, is the secret sauce that makes any flash fiction sing.

A few examples: Jacob doesn’t want just any girlfriend; he yearns for Cynthia with the red flip-flops and A+ in biology—Cynthia, whose father the postmaster once caught Jacob trying to steal stamps, just so his Mom could mail the overdue bills. Or Meredith, who isn’t simply excited about an upcoming wedding anniversary; she yearns for her husband Tom to look at her the way he did when they first met, back at the Cape, back before they’d agreed not to have children and set their sights on world travel instead. Those little asides (stealing stamps, back at the Cape) are backstory, but in the fully realized version of these flashy fictions, the mention of such backstory will stay just as succinct as it appears in this paragraph. In other words: just enough detail to color every sentence that follows.

What Jacob doesn’t know yet is that, as cute as Cynthia is, what he wants even more than her companionship is to experience freedom from the past—a past he feels wasn’t even his fault. What Meredith can’t see is that, as lovely as this year’s wedding anniversary might be, what she wants even more than Tom’s recognition is a sense of purpose and ritual in her life. There’s plenty of room for a story to take place in either one of these scenarios, so the question with flash fiction is: What matters most? We only have a few pages to get the job done. We can’t take half of those pages detailing Jacob’s crush on Cynthia, then slowly coach the reader toward the real issue.

We have to get in, get out, and be done with it. There are Luddite Swing Riots to get back to, after all, not to mention a few Discussion Board posts to create.

Click here to learn more about the online flash fiction course at 49 Writers.

Katey Schultz grew up in Portland, Oregon and is most recently from Celo, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA in Writing program and recipient of the Linda Flowers Literary Award from the North Carolina Humanities Council. Katey teaches workshops, mentors via correspondence, freelances, and travels for her work. In September 2013, her debut short story collection, Flashes of War, was awarded the Gold Medal Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by the Military Writers Society of America. Katey is currently writing a novel set in Afghanistan. She lives in a 1970 Airstream trailer bordering the Pisgah National Forest.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: Perfect Days by Raphael Montes

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

Brazilian novelist Raphael Montes himself stars in the trailer for his English-language debut, Perfect Days, a wicked, twisted thriller about obsession. Here’s the setup for the book, as reported by Amazon:
Brazilian medical student Teo Avelar is not your standard protagonist: for starters, he lives with his mother and his best friend is a cadaver. He is also a psychopath, with no (living) friends, who falls for an aspiring screenplay writer who is his polar opposite. Clarice is bombastic and passionate, while Teo comports himself with a quiet stoicism. After he falls for her, he quickly kidnaps Clarice—with the idea that she only needs time to fall for him—and the wheels are set in motion for Montes’ odd, macabre, fast-paced, twisted, and twisty novel.
Compelled? Repelled? Either way, there’s no denying this 90-second trailer is mesmerizing in its creepiness. A writer tapping on his keyboard in a dark room. A mysterious knock on the door. Who could that be at this time of night? A cautious peek through the peephole...only to find the hallway outside is empty. Hmm, that’s odd. Well, back to the keyboard. Another strange noise comes from outside the door. What the? A slow reach for the door handle. This is how people get killed in horror movies, isn’t it? The door opens, and then

Well, you’ll just have to watch for yourself to find out what happens next. As for me, I know what’s going to happen next on my bookshelf: Perfect Days will fall off into my hands.

Monday, February 1, 2016

My First Time: Sharon Guskin

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Sharon Guskin, author of the debut novel, The Forgetting Time, published by Flatiron Books/Macmillan and recently named an Amazon Editors’ Top Pick for February. In addition to writing fiction, Sharon has worked as a writer and producer of documentary films. She’s been a fellow at Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and Ragdale, and has degrees from Yale University and the Columbia University School of the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons. Click here to visit her website and learn more about her writing.

My First Mentor

When I was a young woman, my model of love came from Jane Eyre; I was looking for Mr. Rochester, that figure, craggy and charismatic, who could see into Jane and appreciate her when no one else could. I held on to this notion for years, despite the fact that the world seemed disinclined to hand over any Rochesters. High school and college boys, trembling and sardonic, yes, a few; but no larger-than-life, romantic figures on which to attach my passionate feelings.

Then came Mr. Matthiessen.

I was twenty-two by then, finishing my senior year at college after a year teaching at a refugee camp in Thailand, from which I had returned disoriented and adrift. My parents were splitting up. My class had graduated while I was away, and the friends I still had on campus were moving through their last year with alarming drive and ambition. I had loved teaching the Lao and Cambodian children at the camp, but it had not clarified anything for me regarding my own future. And I was unnerved by the contrast between my two locales: that unmoored city of dust and earth in which my classrooms were made up of bamboo and blue tarp versus the university’s gothic grandeur and solid, stone-cold belief in itself.

I picked my courses distractedly. I’d always liked writing, had wished to be a writer as a child, so I applied for a well-known visiting writer’s fiction and nonfiction classes, sending off a few pages describing a visit to Bangkok’s red light district. Perhaps something of my confusion and loneliness bled through strongly enough to summon the teacher’s interest; in any case, I got into the fiction class, so that’s the way I went.

Peter Matthiessen was in his sixties then, and his face was weathered, but his handsomeness was intact. He was lean, high-cheekboned, erect of carriage, altogether remarkable-looking; you couldn’t separate his looks from his presence, or at least I couldn’t. His vitality was amazing and manifested as much in stillness as in motion. He came into the class and nodded formally at me, blue eyes bright, a faint smile on his face. It is possible that he nodded at everyone. Probably he did. But I couldn’t tell you for sure, because when he nodded at me I saw a spark of recognition leap from his eyes, and my breath caught in my chest. I didn’t breathe again for the duration of the semester.

To this day I have little recollection of the other courses I must have taken or anything else I might have done those months. I lived for his nod. When I wasn’t in class with him or doing my work, I read his books, marveling at the wild, solitary joy of the isolated main character at the end of one of his novels, or the way “laid naked to the sun and sky, he felt himself open like a flower.” I read his most famous book of nonfiction, The Snow Leopard, and though I didn’t understand very much of its Eastern mysticism, the feeling in it resonated through me like the sound of a bell.

I wasn’t foolish enough to think that anything might actually happen between us. Peter was married, and my teacher, and at least forty years older, and a Zen Buddhist priest besides. In our interactions in class there wasn’t a tinge of any inappropriate interest on his part; he seemed to regard me with fondness and mild amusement. Nor was I his favorite; there was another writer in the class, now one of my closest friends, whose brilliant prose style met his high standards for “boldness,” and she was the one he recommended for an award. I loved him anyway: fiercely, hopelessly, the way I loved then.

Even though he came into town only on the day he taught, the air seemed always imbued with his presence, as if he was watching me. I spent hours wondering if the connection was imagined and decided against it; for surely there was something there, surely he felt something, too? I walked around cupping this spark in my hands like a precious flame that might go out at any moment. I may have been obsessed, but I felt awake.

And I wrote. I was on fire. I began a novel about a girl who was working at a refugee camp and fell in love (impossibly) with a handsome Cambodian monk who just happened to have very high cheekbones and an erect carriage. I wrote pages and pages. I called the novel Samsara, which I vaguely understood as the Buddhist wheel of life and death; I thought it had a pretty sound. What did Peter think of my novel? I can’t imagine that my ardor escaped his notice, or the similarities between my Zen teacher and the monk in the plot. But he merely looked at me with that half-smile of his and wrote at the bottom of my pages in pencil: “I like the feel of it. Keep going!”

I visited him during office hours; he sat behind an empty desk, its only occupant the bottom half of a peeled orange.

“So. I was wondering if you had any more suggestions for my novel,” I said.

“No.” He looked at me calmly.

A moment of silence ensued that he apparently wasn’t interested in breaking.

There was nothing else to say, so I told him the truth.

“I want to be a writer. But I’m…insecure.” I mumbled the last word, wincing.

He laughed. “All writers are insecure.” He leaned across the desk. “I’m insecure.”

I sat there, stunned. I’d been fishing, of course; I’d wanted him to say something about my work (or me) that would put an end to my insecurity forever. Instead, I got a challenge. Of course, you’re insecure. Now what are you going to do?

I kept going. The girl and the monk ran off together and began a doomed, Jane Eyre-infused romance. The class finished. On the last day, walking out of the building towards the pizza place where Peter was taking us all as an end-of-semester treat, he mentioned that I could send him my novel when I had made it the best it could be, and that if he liked it he’d recommend it, but he’d be honest in his response, I had to be ready for that. “I am,” I said vehemently. Some knowledge passed across his face. “Yes, I see that about you.” I looked up at him, utterly dazzled, and he spontaneously leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “I’ll kiss all the girls,” he said afterward, and probably he did.

In the Matthiessen-less days and months that followed, a flame persisted, a sense of possibility onto which I affixed his name. I traveled to Spain and France with my sister and felt his presence as if he was watching me among the Pyrenees. I wrote about him in my diary: “Peter's like a bright place inside.”

I never sent him my work. Nothing ever seemed good enough to share with him. I kept writing, though, for over twenty years. I finished that novel and wrote another one, although I didn’t find a publisher for either. As I kept going, trying to get better despite my insecurity, I thought sometimes of his belief in making the effort to get it right; and when recently I began practicing Buddhism myself, at first a little, and then a bit more, and finally with a wholehearted feeling, an inner brightness, I realized something about my love for Peter and that wave of emotion I had assumed was both hopeless and romantic. It was neither.

Imagine you are a twenty-two year old woman experiencing a powerful sense of possibility, and the conduit for all this feeling is a handsome, renowned, extraordinary man: how could one not mistake this feeling for romantic love, which our society tells us is the most powerful emotion there is? Yet the difference matters.

Of course, there are teachers who might have taken advantage of this situation. And if Peter had been one of them, this might have been a sordid story, or it might have been a more exciting, heartbreaking one. But in either case it would have been less important. By Mr. Rochestering Peter Matthiessen I had perceived the link between us as fleeting, romantic, and disappointing, when in reality the influence of this brief connection turned out to be as lasting and as encouraging as I could imagine. This man was a high priest of literature and the first spiritually present person I’d ever met. He was committed fully to both paths in his own life, and in the darkness of mine he lit both sparks.

I visited him a couple years ago, with that friend from the class. He showed us the Zendo he’d built on his property; I told him I’d started to meditate, though I hadn’t yet found my teacher, and he laughed a little at the “softness” of the approach I described. I’d known by then that my third crack at writing a novel was going to be published, but it still didn’t seem ready to share with him. And besides, he was sick. He’d been traveling in Mongolia to research the wildlife there, staying in a yurt, and had realized with surprise that he felt tired, so when he returned he went to the doctor and discovered he had leukemia. He was 85. He was still writing, finishing his last novel.

He died a year later and appeared to me soon after in a dream, showing up abruptly, with a questioning look. “I didn’t send you anything because nothing seemed good enough,” I said to him. He nodded impatiently. “And I became a writer in your class,” I added. He laughed. “I’m not surprised,” he said.

And he was gone.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Sentence: “I Need, I Need” by Theodore Roethke

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

          I wish I was a pifflebob
          I wish I was a funny
          I wish I had ten thousand hats
          And made a lot of money.

“I Need, I Need” from Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday Freebie: Winter by Christopher Nicholson

Congratulations to Beverly Sizemore, Bart Zimmer, and Abby DeBenedittis, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Longest Night by Andria Williams.

This week’s book giveaway is Winter by Christopher Nicholson, a novel that has made its way onto my To-Be-Read list, if for nothing else than that gorgeous cover alone. But Nicholson’s novel is worth a peek for what’s behind the cover, too. Read on for more information...

A November morning in the 1920s finds an elderly man in his eighties walking the grounds of his Dorchester home, pondering his past and future with deep despondence. That man is the revered novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, and Christopher Nicholson's fictionalized account of the final years of the accomplished writer's life is as engrossing as it is heartbreaking. The novel focuses on the true events that occurred around the London theater dramatization of Hardy's acclaimed novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, including Hardy's hand-picked casting of the young, alluring Gertrude "Gertie" Bugler of The Hardy Players to play Tess. As plans for the play become more concrete, Hardy's interest in Gertie becomes a voyeuristic infatuation, causing him to write some of the best poems of his career. However, when Hardy's reclusive wife, Florence, catches wind of Hardy's desire for Gertie to take the London stage, a tangled web of jealously and missed opportunity ensnares all three characters-with devastating results. Told from the perspectives of Hardy, Gertie, and Florence, Nicholson's novel perfectly captures the often-difficult juxtaposition of fledgling hopes and the unfulfilled life. With expert insight into the struggles of both Hardy and Florence, coupled with poetic yet unassuming prose, Winter is certainly on par with the novels of its central character. Praise: “Winter is quietly intelligent and compassionate, but what stands out most is that it is gorgeously, gorgeously written in prose so elegantly crafted that it becomes, paradoxically, almost invisible. it never shouts, never startles, just moves lithely along with an almost miraculous sense of rightness.” (The Minneapolis Star Tribune)

If you’d like a chance at winning Winter, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 4, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 5. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Soup and Salad: Larry Levis peels the wallpaper, Story Prize finalists announced, Andria Williams pays attention to her characters, The Proust Book Club, Katey Schultz teaches you how to flash

On today’s menu:

photo by George R. Janecek
1.  Before this year’s publication of The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, I wasn’t familiar with the works of the late poet Larry Levis. Shame on me, I guess, because Levis—who died of a heart attack in 1996—appears to have had many admirers: among them, Pam Houston, who was getting her doctorate degree at the University of Utah while Levis was teaching fiction writing there in the 90s. Over at the Graywolf Press blog, Pam has a wonderful story to tell about Levis’ appearance at the 1990 AWP conference in Denver:
      The Utah contingent sat near the front of the ballroom, feeling cool by association. In a few minutes Larry was going to peel the fleur-de-lis off the wallpaper with his poetry, and with the misguided smugness of grad students, we considered him ours.
      Except then it was fifteen minutes after the scheduled time of the reading, and there was no sign of Larry. This did not surprise us. He’d be there, we assured each other; time wasn’t really his best thing. But then another fifteen minutes went by.
      We looked around the room nervously. Nobody seemed to want to go to the podium and call the reading off.
      Just when the din of chatter seemed to have reached maximum volume, the doors to the ballroom crashed open and Larry stepped in. As distinctive as everything else about him, his walk was a little like a cartoon dog’s—think Pluto, or Marmaduke—he took big strides during which his feet never seemed to quite touch the ground. He float-loped to the podium in this fashion, and everyone fell quiet. He was wearing his uniform of a black motorcycle jacket, black jeans, and boots. He tucked the half cigarette he’d been holding behind his ear and looked down at his hands, as if a book might appear there. He felt around in all of his pockets, and came away with nothing.
      In the second row we stole glances at each other. No one in the room seemed to be breathing. Then he put one hand on either side of the podium, bore down on us, and recited Caravaggio: Swirl and Vortex—all 4 glorious long-lined pages of it-- from memory. The room burst into applause. Our little cadre of grad students swooned. It was one of those moments—there are a few in every young writer’s life—that let you see exactly what you have signed up for.

2.  The three finalists for The Story Prize were announced earlier this month: There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter, Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson, and Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann. The winner will be announced on March 2.

3.  At the Time Now blog, Peter Molin appears to have loved Andria Williams’ debut novel, The Longest Night, as much as I did:
Williams notices what her characters notice, but also much that they don’t understand or only half-intuit; this close attention to their interiority as much as the period detail makes The Longest Night come alive. In many ways, though, the strictures of military service and culture portrayed in The Longest Night might be said to be timeless, for Williams casts a net around military families and military duty and pulls in many fine fish in the way of still relevant insights about life in uniform. Readers who never served or veterans who served only a tour or two can make of Williams’ portrait of military domesticity what they will, but readers who have tried to keep a marriage together over the long haul of a military career will marvel at her acuity at describing the rewards and pleasures, such as they are, while also conveying a more pervasive feeling of disappointment and perhaps even of life wasted.

4.  File under: In Search of Lost Reading Time.
While in college, I promised myself that one day I would read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time after graduation. I made this vow, as all 21-year-olds must, knowing very little of the realities of full-time employment, commuting, and Sunday brunch plans. I also made this resolution at a time when my daily Internet activity consisted of checking my email and maybe, if I was really hungry, the dining hall menu. I had no idea that reading would one day become an activity that I would have to plan....And so, here I am, 10 years (!) later, trying again to finish one of the best novels I’ve ever read, possibly the best novel I’ve ever read. (I’ll know for sure when I finish.) The world (i.e. the Internet) has only gotten more distracting and, having become the mother of a three-year-old, my daily responsibilities have increased and become less negotiable. At the same time, one thing I’ve learned over the past decade is that you can accomplish a lot by doing a little of something every day. You can raise a child, write a book, make a life with another person. Almost everyone I know who has completed In Search of Lost Time (and to be clear, most of these “known” people are those who have written about the experience, not anyone I’ve met personally) did it slowly, reading just 10 to 20 pages a day, usually in the morning. At a pace of 10 pages a day, it will take me about a year and two months to finish, a period of time that doesn’t seem as long as it did 10 years ago.
Over at The Millions, staff writer Hannah Gersen is knuckling down, buckling up and saying “To hell with the distracting internet!” as she embarks on a plan to read Proust. Will you join her journey? I see you’ve bought a box of madeleines, so you’re already halfway there.

5.  The 49 Writers Center in Alaska always has a good lineup of classes, but if you can't afford to travel all the way to Anchorage, I have good news for you: you can get your schooling from the comfort of your lawn chair in Boca Raton. The Center has a series of online courses, including one on flash fiction taught by Katey Schultz (Flashes of War). Here are the details:
This four-week online course will focus on flash fiction—short stories that range from 250-750 words—often described as “stories of the moment” or “a work of art carved on a grain of sand.” Writers who are unfamiliar with the genre will find enough challenge and support to come away with new knowledge and guided practice, as well as a very clear understanding of scene. More experienced writers will enjoy the intellectual challenges of the lectures and discussions, as well as in-depth prompts from the instructor. Each week includes guided discussion forums, assigned readings, a brief lecture, and prompts. Participants should plan on 2-3 hours of work with the materials per week (or more depending on personal engagement), in addition to writing time. At the end of the month, turn in 1 polished flash fiction to the instructor for feedback (and participate in the optional peer-review process, if desired). The course concludes with an optional livestream Video Chat.
The first class bell rings on Feb. 29. Go here to see the syllabus.

Monday, January 25, 2016

My First Time: Rachel Cantor

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Rachel Cantor, author of Good on Paper, a new novel published by Melville House. Rachel’s stories have appeared in such magazines as The Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Fence, and Volume 1 Brooklyn. They have been anthologized, nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, short-listed by both the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories, and awarded runner-up Bridport and Graywolf/SLS Prizes. Rachel is also the author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World. She currently lives in Brooklyn. Click here to visit her website.

My First Artists’ Colony

It was February 1999. I had finished my creative writing MA at Johns Hopkins nine months earlier, but hadn’t decided what to do next. I’d been a summer intern at a Jewish retreat center, I’d stayed on a friend’s couch in her studio apartment in D.C., I’m sure I spent time visiting my sister and her young family, and I was, by January, staying on the couch of yet another friend, this time in Philly. I was anything but settled. Probably I hadn’t written in months. But I was a writer—I was sure about that, and it wasn’t just my degree that told me so. Still, I hadn’t published even one short story—publication was all but unimaginable! But the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artists’ colony located in Amherst, Virginia, didn’t care about that. They invited me for a five-week residency—five weeks! Five weeks during which time—could it be?—I was to do nothing but write. I’d have my own room, with a door! I could unpack a suitcase, finally. Good people would cook me meals. I could meditate, pretend to do yoga. The clicking of my laptop would disturb no one, nor would I be disturbed by toddlers, curious cats, the daily lives of my most generous friends.

As I arrived, according to my diary, I was even more unsettled. I was organizing a work trip to Rwanda to start just days after the residency. I’d just had emergency dental work—my cheek the night before I traveled was, I wrote, “swole like a pumpkin.” Maybe my back hurt: I was concerned about managing my suitcases through two commuter rail legs and two flights.

I was soothed, though, by the affable Robert Johnson, longtime driver for VCCA (and fried-chicken chef and poker player and VCCA institution), who picked me up at the airport, and welcomed me with his hard-for-this-Yankee-to-always-understand Virginia accent. And I was charmed by my studio—more specifically, the presence within it of the “La-Z-Boy of my dreams.” Before I’d had five minutes to sit in it, I was coming up with plans: I would be “up at 6, washed by 6:30, stretched and sat by 7:30, breakfasted and off to work by 8,” though I’d never voluntarily gotten up at 6 for any reason, ever. I had so many plans! I would write new work in the morning, revise in the afternoon, and read all night. I named something like a dozen short stories I could rework. According to one plan I mapped out that first night, in addition to all this new work, and this revision, and this reading, I would reread and revise a novel I’d written some years before—easy if I broke it up into pieces, right? Thirty-nine days seemed an endless expanse. Probably I cried at the thought of it. I know I marveled at the gift.

By lunchtime my first day, I had spent three straight hours revising a story. Still, I wrote that I needed to “resist this feeling (already!) that I'm not being productive.” Again and again in the days to come, I would berate myself for not working hard enough. But I did work hard—harder than I’d ever worked before—and I was productive. One afternoon, I wrote: “The hours just slip away. Have I ever spent so many hours in one day working on a single story (must count: nearly five hours)? Probably not. I want to write all day.” There were dead ends, of course, mostly involving attempts to revive old work, like that early novel. But sitting on my beloved La-Z-Boy, listening to Nirvana on my cassette Walkman (yes!), I drafted or revised five stories I would later publish.

More than that, however, I set the course for the work I would do for the next decade. “I’d so much like to start a new series,” I wrote that first night after rereading some drafts, “give my writing over the next few weeks some structure, some direction, but of course I can't imagine what that series might be, esp. now that I’m so disillusioned by Shira … To follow a single character through vastly different moments in her life—that would be a good structure …” From this germ came the first “Shira” stories, eight of which I since published in magazines like the Kenyon Review, One Story, New England Review, and Fence. From this germ (and I guess despite my “disillusion”!) also came Good on Paper, a “Shira” story that became my just-now-published second novel.

My first colony was not just about writing—doing good work and discovering how hard I could work, how much I could write. It was about artistic community. I met composers, I met the accordionist for the Pogues, I met sculptors, and book artists, and a 98-year-old painter. I lit Shabbat candles with an Israeli and a former rebbetzin. I played nickel-ante poker, I heard other writers read, I went to open studios, and, yes, a dance party or two. People asked to read my work! They wanted me to read for them—me! The unpublished writer! How I admired them, those accomplished, dedicated people, those professionals, with their agents and galleries and recordings! How I wanted to be like them. And for five beautiful weeks I was.

“Write this down,” I wrote during one of those first days, “in case I ever forget it: writing is the best thing. Even revising is wonderful. I can’t believe it’s after 10 already. That’s all I needed to say.” I have since had the incredible good fortune to be a fellow at nearly 30 residencies in four countries. Every time, I hope to approach this gift with the wonder and excitement of my first time.

Author photo: Bennett Beckenstein; VCCA photo: Katey Schultz

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Wilderness by Lance Weller

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

A Union man loses both eyes to a spray of hot shrapnel and staggers forward. Rebel soldiers part before him, do not touch him or allow him to be touched, as though he has become beloved of God.
Wilderness by Lance Weller

Friday, January 22, 2016

Friday Freebie: The Longest Night by Andria Williams

Congratulations to Jacinda Power, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Nothing But the Dead and Dying by Ryan W. Bradley.

This week, I’m giving away three copies of The Longest Night, the debut novel by Andria Williams. Several months ago, I received an advance reading copy of the novel and provided these words of endorsement:
It's hard to believe The Longest Night is Andria Williams' debut novel. Her command of language, character and plotthe three essential ingredients for a riveting readis extraordinary. The Longest Night is about the fragility of a marriage, a Cold War nuclear accident on the plains of Idaho, and the stresses on a military family during deployment, and it takes on each of those things with all the robust storytelling energy of the great Russian novelists of the 19th century. This is the book I will be pressing into my friends' hands this year when they ask me what they should be reading.
Read on for more information about The Longest Night...

In 1959, Nat Collier moves with her husband, Paul, and their two young daughters to Idaho Falls, a remote military town. An Army Specialist, Paul is stationed there to help oversee one of the country’s first nuclear reactors—an assignment that seems full of opportunity. Then, on his rounds, Paul discovers that the reactor is compromised, placing his family and the entire community in danger. Worse, his superiors set out to cover up the problem rather than fix it. Paul can’t bring himself to tell Nat the truth, but his lies only widen a growing gulf between them. Lonely and restless, Nat is having trouble adjusting to their new life. She struggles to fit into her role as a housewife and longs for a real friend. When she meets a rancher, Esrom, she finds herself drawn to him, comforted by his kindness and company. But as rumors spread, the secrets between Nat and Paul build and threaten to reach a breaking point. Based on a true story of the only fatal nuclear accident to occur in America, The Longest Night is a deeply moving novel that explores the intricate makeup of a marriage, the shifting nature of trust, and the ways we try to protect the ones we love.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Longest Night, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 28, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 29. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Front Porch Books: January 2016 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, independent bookstores, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.  I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books. 

Not all Bastards are from Vienna
by Andrea Molesini
(Grove Press)

I’ll confess, I am so in love with this cover design, if I was a cheating man, I’d be making it my mistress. Those colors pop and glow, the beauty making a sharp contrast to the word “bastards” in the title. Beyond the pretty wrapping paper, though, there’s an intriguing story about wartime horror and heroism to be had here in these pages.

Jacket Copy:  In the autumn of 1917, Refrontolo—a small community north of Venice—is invaded by Austrian soldiers as the Italian army is pushed to the Piave river. The Spada family owns the largest estate in the area, where orphaned seventeen-year-old Paolo lives with his eccentric grandparents, headstrong aunt, and a loyal staff. With the battlefront nearby, the Spada home become a bastion of resistance, both clashing and cooperating with the military members imposing on their household. When Paolo is recruited to help with a covert operation, his life is put in irrevocable jeopardy. As he bears witness to violence and hostility between enemies, he grows to understand the value of courage, dignity, family bonds, and patriotism during wartime.

Opening Lines:  He loomed up out of the night. And for an instant there was nothing to distinguish him from it. Then a glint, a reflection from the lantern the woman was holding up close to the horse’s nose, attested to a monocle. The man addressed the woman in impeccable Italian, flawed only by certain gutturals that revealed his German mother tongue. There was something fierce and splendid in that face bathed in the swaying lamplight, as if the stars and the dust were met there together.

Blurbworthiness:  “Take Hemingway’s masterpiece A Farewell to Arms and Erich Maria Remarque’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front, and cross these two war depictions with the portrait of Italian aristocracy in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard....[Not all Bastards are from Vienna] is a powerful and effective blend of Bildungsroman, armchair travel, historical document, and war drama, with touches of a thriller.”  (Kultur)

Joe Gould’s Teeth
by Jill Lepore

I’ve been fascinated by the strange, homeless, possibly-genius Joe Gould ever since I saw the 2000 movie based on his life, starring Ian Holm and Stanley Tucci. I’ve had Joseph Mitchell’s My Ears Are Bent on my shelf ever since—but, like too many of its neighbors, have yet to read it. Perhaps I could pair it with Jill Lepore’s new book, which looks fascinating in its own right. My eyes are peeled.

Jacket Copy:  When Joseph Mitchell published his profile of Joseph Gould in the December 1942 issue of The New Yorker, he deemed Gould’s purportedly masterful but rarely seen Oral History project, which allegedly consisted of nine million words detailing everything anyone ever said to him, “the longest unpublished work in existence.” But Mitchell, in fact, hadn’t read more than a few pages of the Oral History. The manuscript seemed to have gone missing, along with other of Gould’s possessions—his hair, his sight, his teeth—as he began to sink deeper into poverty, drink, and destitution. And as Gould neared the end of his life, lying pathologically, begging for money from friends and strangers alike, and deflecting publishers’ requests to read his work, Mitchell couldn’t help but wonder: Had the Oral History ever existed? After Gould’s death in 1957, Mitchell wrote a second profile in which he insisted that it did not. Was Mitchell wrong? Joe Gould’s Teeth is a literary investigation of this enigmatic figure of the early twentieth century, who, despite doubts surrounding his sanity, captured the imaginations of the most prominent writers and artists of the time. Renowned master of historical storytelling Jill Lepore carefully unravels the riddle of Joe Gould and his missing manuscript, probing deeply into our collective self-conscious, the nature of art, and how we define our reality for the future. Complete with appearances from the likes of E. E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and Augusta Savage and set against the backdrop of inter-war and post-war New York’s glamour and grime, Joe Gould’s Teeth is not only the portrait of one man’s mind, but also a profound meditation on the limits of how well one ever knows another person.

Opening Lines:  For a long time, Joe Gould thought he was going blind. This was before he lost his teeth and years before he lost the history of the world he’d been writing in hundreds of dime-store composition notebooks, their black covers mottled like the pelt of a speckled goat, their white pages lined with thin blue veins.

Among the Dead and Dreaming
by Samuel Ligon
(Leapfrog Press)

I know two things: 1) Samuel Ligon’s new novel opens with a motorcycle crash that draws me in like nobody’s business; 2) I loved Ligon’s debut novel, Safe in Heaven Dead (which also began with a killer sentence—literally: “Robert Elgin died on the street, knocked down and run over by a Second Avenue bus while pursuing a woman he thought he could not live without.”). Okay, maybe I also know a third thing: I’m going to read Among the Dead and Dreaming just as soon as I can.

Jacket Copy:  Nikki has spent her life running from her abusive mother and the violent boyfriend she killed years ago, and now from his brother, Burke, just released from prison. Burke doesn’t know yet how his brother died, but he’s obsessed with finding Nikki and claiming her—and her daughter—as his own. Now she’s run out of room to run.

Opening Lines:  The rain was more like mist, soft against your skin the way the air is down by the ocean, so beautiful and calm, even from the back of Kyle’s motorcycle. I wanted to go faster and faster through it, my eyes closed tight and the water running off my face. It was just me and Kyle, or me and the ocean, me and the rain, or not me at all, just Kyle, the ocean, the rain, until we hit something and I was weightless, flying, the anticipation of landing lifting me into this bright, raw awareness. Nothing had been settled. Nothing ever would be settled. Nothing was supposed to be settled. And nothing was supposed to be accomplished, either, except the baby in my belly, the beautiful baby I wrapped myself around as we flew. Mark didn’t know about her—I’d only been certain a few weeks myself—but I sometimes thought she might save us. I didn’t know her name yet, not for sure. I just thought, baby, baby, baby, the one good thing I was going to do with myself, the one good thing I’d have. And then I did know her name for sure—Isabelle. My sweet baby Isabelle. Those moments we were in the air seemed like they might go on forever.

Blurbworthiness:  “Part meditation on modern love’s dark and often unexamined underbelly; part can’t-put-it-down-even-for-a-dinner-break-thriller, this novel contains one of the most convincingly and complicatedly terrifying fictional characters I have run into.”  (Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted)

Marrow Island
by Alexis M. Smith
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The wait is over. For the legions of Alexis M. Smith fans (and I like to imagine there are legions), the promise of her debut novel, Glaciers, has been fulfilled. In June, our patience will be rewarded with what looks like another terrific, soulful, unforgettable novel that burrows deep under the reader’s skin. “Most Anticipated” doesn’t even begin to cover my feelings for Marrow Island.

Jacket Copy:  Twenty years ago Lucie Bowen left Marrow Island; along with her mother, she fled the aftermath of an earthquake that compromised the local refinery, killing her father and ravaging the island’s environment. Now, Lucie’s childhood friend Kate is living within a mysterious group called Marrow Colony—a community that claims to be “ministering to the Earth.” There have been remarkable changes to the land at the colony’s homestead. Lucie’s experience as a journalist tells her there’s more to Marrow Colony—and their charismatic leader—than they want her to know, and that the astonishing success of their environmental remediation has come at great cost to the colonists themselves. As she uncovers their secrets and methods, will Lucie endanger more than their mission? What price will she pay for the truth?

Opening Lines:  This was my last glimpse of Marrow Island before the boat pulled away: brown and green uniforms clustered on the beach, tramping up the hill to the chapel on the beach, tramping up the hill to the chapel and through the trees to the cottages of Marrow Colony. The boat wasn’t moving yet, but the uniforms already seemed to be getting smaller, receding from my sight, shrinking into a diorama, a miniature scene of the crime.

Blurbworthiness:  “Conjuring a lush and mysterious landscape, Marrow Island investigates the impact of the losses of the past—be they loved ones, failed quests, or the environmental calamities brought on by our collective blindness. By turns elegiac, compelling, and timely, it seeks real answers and finds the possibility of miracles. This is a beautiful novel.”  (Edan Lepucki, author of California)

All the Winters After
by Seré Prince Halverson

As a fan of Seré Prince Halverson’s debut novel, The Underside of Joy, this new one—set in Alaska—is another one that’s been on my most-anticipated list for a long time. Given the subject matter and the opening lines, I’m primed to love this one, too.

Jacket Copy:  Alaska doesn’t forgive mistakes. That’s what Kachemak Winkel’s mother used to tell him. A lot of mistakes were made that awful day twenty years ago, when she died in a plane crash with Kache’s father and brother—and Kache still feels responsible. He fled Alaska for good, but now his aunt Snag insists on his return. She admits she couldn’t bring herself to check on his family’s house in the woods—not even once since he’s been gone. Kache is sure the cabin has decayed into a pile of logs, but he finds smoke rising from the chimney and a mysterious Russian woman hiding from her own troubled past. Nadia has kept the house exactly the same—a haunting museum of life before the crash. And she’s stayed there, afraid and utterly isolated, for ten years. Set in the majestic, dangerous beauty of Alaska, All the Winters After is the story of two bound souls trying to free themselves, searching for family and forgiveness.

Opening Lines:  Evening crept its way into the cabin, and she went to get the knife. Always this, the need to proclaim: I was here today, alive on this Earth.

Blurbworthiness:  “Seré Prince Halverson delivers another riveting story about the bonds of family. All The Winters After is a beautiful and compelling tale set in the wilds of Alaska. A young woman broken by love sets a collision course with a family torn apart by grief and guilt. The secrets are deep. The winter is long. And the characters are unforgettable. I loved this book.”  (Amy Franklin-Willis, author of The Lost Saints of Tennessee)

by Peter Geye

The other “winter book” I hope to read before the snow melts here in Butte, Montana is this new one by Peter Geye. I thoroughly enjoyed his 2012 novel The Lighthouse Road, and I’m expecting similar great things from Wintering, which will take me deep into the Minnesota wilderness.

Jacket Copy:  An exceptional and acclaimed writer joins Knopf with his third novel, far and away his most masterful book yet. There are two stories in play here, bound together when the elderly, demented Harry Eide escapes his sickbed and vanishes into the forbidding northernmost Minnesota wilderness that surrounds the town of Gunflint—instantly changing the Eide family, and many other lives, forever. He’d done this once before, thirty-some years earlier, in 1963, fleeing a crumbling marriage and bringing along Gustav, his eighteen-year-old son, pitching this audacious, potentially fatal scheme to him—winter already coming on, in these woods, on these waters—as a reenactment of the ancient voyageurs’ journeys of discovery. It’s certainly a journey Gus has never forgotten. Now—with his father pronounced dead—he relates its every detail to Berit Lovig, who’d waited nearly thirty years for Harry, her passionate conviction finally fulfilled for the last two decades. So, a middle-aged man rectifying his personal history, an aging lady wrestling with her own, and with the entire history of Gunflint.

Opening Lines:  Our winters are faithful and unfailing and we take what they bring, but this season has tested even the most devout among us. The thermometer hanging outside my window reads thirty-two degrees below zero. Five degrees warmer than yesterday, which itself was warmer than the day before. I can hear the pines exploding, heartwood turned to splinter and pulp all up and down the Burnt Wood River.

Blurbworthiness:  “An elegant, quietly profound, and harrowing novel. I loved this book.”  (Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven)

Monday, January 18, 2016

My First Time: Keith Lee Morris

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Keith Lee Morris, author of the new novel Travelers Rest, now out from Little, Brown. Benjamin Percy, author of The Dead Lands, had this to say about the novel: “It won’t take long—a page, maybe two—before you feel wondrously disquieted by Keith Lee Morris’s Travelers Rest. The novel traps its characters in the town of Good Night, Idaho, and the reader in its shaken snow globe of a world. The language dazzles and the circumstances chill and put this story in the good company of Stephen King’s The Shining, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.” Morris is a professor in the English Department at Clemson University. His four other books of fiction include the novels The Dart League King and The Greyhound God. He was born a Southerner, but he grew up in the Northwest, which probably explains his state of existential confusion. He has a wife, two sons, and three cats.

My First Published Story

I wanted to start off with the sentence, “It started off normally enough,” but then I realized that wasn’t true. Nothing was normal about it from the outset. I published my first story in 1994, but I have to go back at least three years before that in order for any of it to make sense.

In 1991, I had recently graduated at the ripe old age of 27 with a B.A. in English from the University of Idaho, and in trying to figure out what to do with myself for the rest of my life, I had returned to my hometown and taken a job bartending. That wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of my life, except that it did, because the waitress that I had started dating from that same bar turned out later to be my wife. I was pretending to be a writer at the time. This involved going to bars and pulling out tattered sheets of paper filled with squiggly handwriting and frowning at them mysteriously while I drank beer, occasionally adding a few more lines of squiggly handwriting and then sighing deeply. My wife made sure to let me know, later, that she was not at all impressed with this performance, but that she found something about me to like well enough in order to at least put up with me at the time.

I had one story that I recognized might not entirely be a piece of crap. I had started working on it a few years before, when I was living in New Orleans, and I sensed that the main character and his situation and the voice in which I was relating his situation might be moderately interesting to a person other than myself. For that reason, I was proceeding very cautiously, and the story kept getting longer, and there was no end in sight, in either space or time. One fine summer day (there is still nothing, in my experience, as fine as a fine summer day in Idaho), I was at my girlfriend/future wife’s house, where I had been frowning mysteriously at pages of squiggly handwriting while she took a nap. Her mother lived along a winding highway and kept a menagerie of domestic animals—dogs, cats, chickens—that would often wander out into the road and get squashed by 18-wheelers. It was a scary road, and you had to be prepared for it. On that day, I looked both ways several times before pulling out in my girlfriend/future wife’s Honda Civic (my Pontiac Sunbird wasn’t running, which was usually the case), and then looked in the rearview mirror several times, too, once I was on the road, just to make sure I wasn’t going to be squashed like the cats and the chickens, and what I saw was 20 or 30 sheets of paper filled with squiggly handwriting floating in the north Idaho breeze, spreading themselves out along a 100-yard stretch of treacherous asphalt—I had left the only copy of my one decent story on the roof of the car.

I’ve lived with my wife for almost 25 years now, and although we’ve raised two sons together and traveled all over the place and gone through all the various emotional experiences that people who’ve been together for 25 years have inevitably gone through, it’s still possible that the nicest thing she ever did for me was help me retrieve those flying sheets of paper from the shoulder of that dangerous road, and that she never looked more beautiful than she did right at that moment, dodging cars to grab the skittering scraps that would make up my future endeavor, frowning at me not-so-mysteriously (she was, justifiably, pretty angry) all the while.

Fast forward two-and-a-half or so years. Now I’m in grad school at the University of Idaho (again) with a wife and young son along for the ride. I am still, inexplicably, at work on the same old story. By this time, I’ve learned to use a computer, so the squiggly handwriting has been translated into a neat electronic file that mystifies and worries me. I am beginning to think that my dream of being accepted to an MFA program is highly unrealistic, having applied without success before I began the MA program and having made no significant progress since then. When I finish my one and only not so terrible halfway decent story, which is now 60 pages, I take it to one of my professors, who happens to be a novelist, and who, against all odds, says he likes it and thinks I should try to get it published.

To celebrate, I go, for reasons I still can’t quite completely fathom even in retrospect, to a local bar and write a strange, meditative poem about the Donner Party, who ate each other almost alive.

On my professor’s recommendation, I submitted the 60-page story to Quarterly West out of the University of Utah. He told me a publication there would be a feather in my cap when I applied for MFA programs. So I waited anxiously...actually, “anxiously” doesn’t adequately express it, since your whole life and the life of your new family hangs in the balance—it’s amazing, when I think of it, that all of us, we aspiring writers, subject ourselves to this particular form of torture, the waiting, the willingness to let other people arbitrarily decide our fate while we go doggedly about our usual business in the meantime—it almost makes me think we’re rather brave. Anyway, I waited anxiously, and then the weeks and months went by and I waited more anxiously, and then I became more anxiously anxious thinking that something had gone wrong, and I consulted my professor, who told me to be patient. So I did that. I waited patiently on the phone while I called Quarterly West and asked to speak to the Executive Editor. To my surprise, the Executive Editor came on the line. I asked him about my story. Again, to my surprise, he remembered it. Oh yeah, he said, I remember that one. We had a reading party and there was some interest in it and someone took it home and I don’t know what happened to it after that. Let me get back to you.

To this day, I have no idea what a “reading party” is. There was some interest in it. This was the only thing that stood out to me. I floated around on a cloud of possibilities for several days. The Executive Editor called me back. I’m sorry, he said, we lost your manuscript. There was some interest in it. Maybe you could resubmit it to us, and, to make up for the inconvenience, you could send something else along as well.

I was banking on that 60-page story, which by that time had acquired the unwieldy title of “The Often Unrecognized Similarity Between Astronauts, Hardware Salesmen, and Tropical Fish,” to make my future for me. I really didn’t even have anything else...other than that weird poem I’d written about the Donner Party recently. I hauled it out and looked at it. It was a narrative poem. Wow. Huh. If you took out the line breaks, it kind of told a story. Huh. Wow. I put it in the manila envelope with the 60-page epic and sent it to the Executive Editor at Quarterly West.

He called me. The 60-page story was, well, a little long, and a little long-winded, but hey!—what a great short-short that was about the Donner Party. They were pleased to say that they’d like to publish it in their next issue.

It was two pages long, and it was titled “Patty Reed, the Last Surviving Member of the Donner Party, Recollects at Age Ninety-Three,” and it was my first published story, an accident, the product of a lost submission, a poem without the line breaks. The other story, reduced to 40 pages and the one-word title “Astronauts,” was eventually published as well, in Puerto Del Sol out of New Mexico State. The next year I was in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. I was on my way, for better or worse, the way all of us are, scribbled sheets of paper tossed to the wind.